Smart Money Podcast: Nerdy Travel Diaries: Use Points to Fly in Luxury
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In this episode, Liz talks with NerdWallet travel writer Elina Geller about how she books international travel on points alone.
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Flying in business class using points is great, but always make sure you’re getting a good deal. After all, these premium cabin redemptions cost a lot of miles, and you don’t want to pay more than you need to. So how do you know what’s a good redemption or not? And are all business class flying experiences created equal?
Travel Nerd Elina Geller explains why she initially booked a business class award flight from Amsterdam to New York on United with her Aeroplan miles but wound up canceling. Instead, she found a Promo Reward business class ticket on KLM.
The taxes were higher on the KLM flight, but it cost fewer miles. KLM’s cabin configuration, airport location, lounge and other factors played a role in her decision, too. When Elina canceled the Aeroplan ticket, she got the miles back in her Aeroplan account. To book the KLM award, she transferred points from one of her go-to credit cards.
If you want to use points for traveling, too, check promos and learn which cards to use when paying for award flight taxes. Also, try to have transferable points with different programs, so that if an opportunity for a business class award ticket comes along, you can quickly book it.
Diversify your miles and points. And always look out for discounted award tickets.
When paying in cash, always try to earn points. For example, Elina used one of her travel credit cards to pay for the taxes. That way, she was able to use that card’s travel insurance policy.
More about travel on NerdWallet:
Liz Weston: Flying business class is pretty sweet and also pretty expensive if you have to pay cash. Fortunately, there are ways to use travel rewards to score the lie-flat bed of your traveling dreams.
Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Liz Weston.
This episode, we’re continuing our Travel Diaries series, where we’ll hear stories from our travel Nerds about the trips they’ve taken and the money they’ve saved along the way.
This episode, we’re talking with NerdWallet travel writer, Elina Geller. She’s going to share the details of a recent trip to New York and talk about how you can use points and miles to score business class flights once you’re ready to get back out there.
Welcome to the podcast, Elina.
Elina Geller: Thanks for having me.
Liz Weston: In case our listeners haven’t heard before, Elina’s known as the digital nomad, and she basically travels for a living. She uses points and miles almost exclusively, and she typically books business class for those longer flights.
So Elina, let’s start with some travel-hacking basics. What are some of your rules for getting and using points?
Elina Geller: First of all, having a credit card that earns transferable points. If you use a travel credit card that earns points and it’s transferable points, you could transfer those points to many different airlines and hotels. So that’s going to give you the most flexibility.
That’s also better than having an airline or a hotel card, because if you have an airline or a hotel card, you’re only earning miles or points with that specific airline or hotel — versus a transferable point card, you’re going to be able to transfer those points when you need to use them.
And then the other thing is, obviously, when you’re deciding to sign up for a credit card, you want to aim for signing up when the sign-up bonus is high. So, different credit cards will offer different sign-up bonuses at different times. You want to take a look and see when the higher sign-up bonuses are offered.
Just Google — like whatever card you’re interested in — Google what the sign-up bonus history is. And then you will see if the current bonus that’s offered is higher or lower than what has been offered in the past.
Liz Weston: And that’s important, because a lot of times, most of the points that you get are from those sign-up bonuses, right?
Elina Geller: Exactly, right. There’s a few components to this hobby. First is making sure that you sign up for a card when there’s a high sign-up bonus. And second is using that card for your everyday purchases, so that you’re a points-earning machine.
Liz Weston: Awesome. And we should mention that even though we are charging everything we possibly can, we’re also paying our balances off in full every month.
Elina Geller: Yes. That’s super important, because you want to make sure that you’re not paying anything to earn these points. So it’s fine to have a credit card with an annual fee if the card’s benefits are worth it to you. But you should aim to pay your balance in full every month, because if you’re going to be paying finance charges, those finance charges are going to negate the value of the points.
So when we talk about spending, using your card for all your purchases, your spending pattern should not change. You should not be spending more money just because you’re using a credit card. You should just be shifting how you’re paying for things.
Liz Weston: Yeah, exactly. Because it doesn’t make any sense to make purchases you wouldn’t otherwise, or to carry a balance that’s going to wipe out any benefit you get from the rewards.
Elina Geller: Absolutely. Let’s say if you’re looking at a credit card and the sign-up bonus is great, but you need to spend a significant amount of money in a short amount of time and that’s not feasible, then that’s not the right card for you. Wait until a different offer comes along.
Liz Weston: All right. For people who have not yet flown business class, can you talk a little bit about what the big deal is and why business class is so much better?
Elina Geller: Yeah, absolutely. There’s also a few nuances to this, right? So international business class — and when I say international, I mean something like a flight from the U.S. to Europe, a flight from the U.S. to Asia. When you’re flying long distances, crossing oceans, that’s what I mean.
That is a different product than, let’s say, something like first class that’s domestic within the U.S. or business class that’s domestic within Europe, because those are just seats that are slightly bigger in the front of the plane. And that’s not a true business class product. You’re just getting a slightly superior product than economy on a short flight.
What I’m talking about is international, long-distance business class: when you’re in a separate cabin, the seat transforms into a bed, there’s individualized service, it’s different food, it’s different entertainment options. It’s just a completely different experience.
Liz Weston: Yeah. And when you get to wherever you’re going — at least this happened the first time I did it — I didn’t want to get off the plane. It was the first time in my life that I got to my destination like, “No, not yet. I’m not ready to go yet.”
Elina Geller: I know — I feel the same way. If I’m flying in business class, and let’s say if it’s a flight from the U.S. to Europe, oftentimes those are overnight flights. So while it’s great to sleep in business class on a flat bed — obviously you wake up as fresh as a daisy after having a nice meal — you don’t truly get to experience all the fun that business class is.
And if you have a day flight, which is usually what happens when you fly from Europe back to the U.S., you really end up experiencing all of business class, and it’s really nice. And you just really get to enjoy all the perks: the food, the champagne, the priority boarding, the speedier your check-in, just all these nice things — the snacks, the variety, the good entertainment options, the space. I mean the perks are just awesome.
Liz Weston: Yeah. And then there’s the lounges on top of that. That’s usually included in the ticket, right?
Elina Geller: Absolutely. So there’s lounge access that’s provided when you fly in business class or first class, of course. And you can also get lounge access through some credit cards and through Priority Pass.
But sometimes, if you’re lucky, the lounge that you’ll be accessing for your business class flight could be different than Priority Pass and can only be accessible by passengers flying in those premium cabins.
The lounge is going to be a lot less crowded, and it’s going to be quieter. Maybe you’ll have better food options.
Your flight experience really starts from the moment that you get to the airport when you’re flying in premium. And it’s just, like, a nice experience from start to finish.
Liz Weston: Now, all of this stuff does not come cheaply. Can you talk about the typical cost of an international business flight versus economy?
Elina Geller: Generally, you’re looking into thousands of dollars. Like, it could cost $3,000 round trip — $4,000, $5,000, $6,000. It’s always expensive.
Obviously, like, that’s in contrast to what it costs for an economy ticket. I was just looking at some prices of round-trip economy flights, and they were like $500 or $600. This is between the U.S. and Europe.
Liz Weston: Well, talk a little bit about how many points you need and what the contrast is between economy and business.
Elina Geller: Let’s say, for example, from the U.S. to Europe — let’s say an economy ticket will cost 30,000 miles. It’s very feasible that a business class ticket will cost 60,000 miles. So we’re talking about a double of the points, right?
However, when you compare that to the cost in cash, when a business class ticket is in the thousands of dollars, like you’re paying way more than double. You’re getting more out of your miles.
Liz Weston: So although using points to fly business class can be a really good use of those points, you’re also using a lot of points, even if you get a deal. So how do you decide when to travel business class?
Elina Geller: My general rule is if I’m crossing an ocean and it’s a long flight, I want to have a nice experience. I always want to make sure that I’m paying attention to my miles balances with my different programs, because I never want to be in a position where I don’t have enough miles for a redemption.
Liz Weston: Could you talk specifically about your recent trip, where you flew from Amsterdam to New York on business class?
Elina Geller: There are two nonstop options. There’s either United, which flies Amsterdam to New York, or KLM that flies the exact same route.
And the United flight was about 60,000 miles, and the taxes are quite low. And then I know that KLM has — it’s 57,500 miles — but the taxes are pretty high. They’re close to about $300.
I always shy away from the KLM flight because, to me, the whole point of this hobby is to not pay for travel. And paying $300, even if it’s taxes, is still paying. I prefer to just spend as little as possible.
Liz Weston: How much were the taxes on the United flight?
Elina Geller: They were around $90.
Liz Weston: OK, so $200 more in taxes to fly KLM.
Liz Weston: So that’s the flight you went with — the United flight?
Elina Geller: Yeah. So of course there’s a story to this, right? I booked that flight, paid the $90 in taxes, and I thought that that was that.
Liz Weston: And then what happened?
Elina Geller: I knew in the back of my mind that KLM releases monthly Flying Blue promo rewards. And the next day I was like, “Wait a second, let me just quickly check just to see maybe — maybe there will be a discounted promo reward from Amsterdam to New York.”
And usually something like this never aligns for me, but I saw that there was a discounted award ticket in business class on KLM from Amsterdam to New York: 43,125 KLM miles plus $290 in taxes. So now I would be basically saving 20,000 points but paying an extra $200.
Liz Weston: OK. And what were the advantages and disadvantages of KLM?
Elina Geller: The advantages were that it was a newer plane. The configuration in business class is a one-two-one configuration, which means that if you’re sitting on the sides of the plane, there’s only one seat. And in the middle, there’s two seats.
If you’re traveling with someone, picking two seats in the middle is great because you could talk. There’s a divider; you could put it up, you could put it down. But if you’re traveling solo, it’s nice to have a seat by the window, because you don’t have to step over any passenger that’s next to you.
Versus on the United flight, it’s a two-two-two configuration. So if you’re sitting on either side of the plane, you may have to step over the passenger next to you. I didn’t like that. So that’s a disadvantage of United.
Another advantage of the KLM flight was there’s a better lounge in Amsterdam. It’s a KLM Flying Blue lounge, and it’s just a lot nicer than the United lounge, because United uses a Priority Pass lounge, and it’s a lot more crowded. And the KLM lounge is just much more beautiful. So I like that lounge.
Also, when you fly in KLM in business class, you get a little blue Delft collector house. So that’s just like a cute little gift.
Elina Geller: Yeah. I flew this route before, so I have another house. So now I have two. So it’s very cute.
Liz Weston: Oh, that sounds great. Not something you’d want to pay extra for, just to get that house. But it’s kind of a nice add-on.
Elina Geller: Exactly. It’s a cute little gift, and they give you a choice of different ones to pick. So you can make sure that you get a collection of all different houses.
And of course, one of the cons of KLM is the fact that it flies into JFK, versus United — which flies into Newark — and that’s much more convenient for me. I live on the West Side in Manhattan, and that’s a closer airport ride.
Liz Weston: OK, so what did you ultimately decide?
Elina Geller: I ultimately decided that I was going to fly KLM. First of all, it’s less points in general. And obviously it’s a nicer business class experience, because it’s a better seat, newer plane and all that good stuff.
Liz Weston: The flexibility to cancel and have the points come back — that’s another benefit of booking with points. If your plans change, if you change your mind about a flight, you can easily just cancel it, get the points back and move on.
Elina Geller: Well, that’s not always the case.
Liz Weston: Oh, good to know.
Elina Geller: Yeah, honestly, it’s been such a long time since I looked at what the actual cancellation policies were before the times of COVID. It’s super flexible now, but I don’t know if every single airline is super flexible.
There’s no hard and fast rule of how much flexibility you have. Everything completely depends on the airline and the type of fare you booked and when you’re traveling.
Liz Weston: OK, that’s good. So it’s another thing you want to research before you make a decision?
Elina Geller: Always. It’s just like any kind of booking. You always want to know: Is it free cancellation? Is there a fee? Can you get your miles back? Do you get your money back, or is it going to be a travel credit? What are you going to get when you cancel?
Liz Weston: Elina, you do a great job of sniffing out the deals. And sometimes when you look at an award chart for business class, they want a phenomenal amount of miles. Sometimes it’s not 60,000; sometimes it’s 500,000.
So how do you find the sweet spots? How do you find those great deals?
Elina Geller: Right. So it’s true that prices can vary significantly. And what you’re talking about — the really, really high redemption, like it’s costing 300,000 miles or 400,000 miles.
So when an airline will release award availability, they will release a certain number of seats in business class that you can book with miles at the standard, let’s say award-chart rate. So 60,000 miles, right?
So maybe there’ll be 20 seats in business class, and maybe five will be available to book with miles at that standard rate. Once those five are booked up, or maybe once the cabin is mostly full with passengers who pay for revenue tickets, the airline will take away those standard rates.
So all that’s going to be available is the book-at-anytime kind of fare in miles, which is going to just be a completely dynamic number that could vary, could cost hundreds of thousands of miles. And I will never book with those.
I just know when I see that, that I need to be more flexible. Maybe I need to fly on another date. Maybe I need to fly into another airport.
That’s another thing that’s important to think about when you’re getting into miles and points, is that you have to be flexible, right? It’s not like you’re going to look and say, “OK, I want to fly on Friday and come back on Monday, and I want the cheapest flight. And if I can’t get it, then this hobby doesn’t work.”
No, if you’re trying to get these redemptions, sometimes you may need to fly on a Thursday, or maybe you may need to have a connection.
It’s not always the case. The majority of the time, I’m able to find the redemptions that I want. But sometimes you do have to be flexible, especially around holidays.
Liz Weston: Do you have any other hacks that you used on this particular trip?
Elina Geller: Yes, because I have several credit cards that give me Uber credits, I was able to get $25 off my Uber ride home.
This is another important thing: travel insurance. If you have a credit card that gives you travel insurance, and you use that credit card to pay for the tax component of your flight, you will get the travel insurance benefits.
So first of all, do that. And then second of all, when you’re paying for those taxes, obviously use a credit card that earns points so that you’re always earning points.
Liz Weston: OK. That’s great advice, because travel insurance can be kind of expensive and having that triggered for just paying the taxes with the card — that’s a pretty good hack.
Liz Weston: OK. How do you keep track of all the different benefits your cards offer so that you remind yourself to use them?
Elina Geller: There’s an app that I use. It tracks a lot of this for me. But honestly I don’t really use it all the time, as much as I should. A lot of it I just keep in my head.
Liz Weston: Yeah, because it’s what you do for a living.
Elina Geller: Basically. It’s been my lifestyle for 11 years now. It’s a lot of what I think about the most.
Liz Weston: OK, very good. I actually put some notes on my calendar to remind me to use certain benefits before they expire, because I had a bunch that went away before I had a chance to use them. And I just hate that. I hate when you get a benefit, and you don’t get to use it. Drives me nuts.
Elina Geller: I know. It’s because you want to turn your credit card into a moneymaker, and it’s hard to do that if you’re letting the benefits go unused.
Liz Weston: All right. Well, do you have any other advice for people if they want to get into this travel-hacking game?
Elina Geller: I would say start reading beginner guides, because there’s a lot of information out there. It could seem overwhelming.
But start reading beginner guides, get yourself familiar with airline miles, hotel points, transferable credit card points. How do you use them? What is an airline that’s close — your home airport? Where do you want to go? How many miles would it cost on what airline? How can you get those points? And so on.
Just start looking based on a specific trip that you have coming up, and that will be an easy way to learn a little bit about this.
Liz Weston: That’s good advice. So Elina, do you have any takeaway tips for us?
Elina Geller: Yeah, absolutely. I have two. One, it’s a great idea to diversify your miles and points and always be on the lookout for discounted award tickets.
And two, if you’re paying in cash, always try to earn points. For example, I use the credit card that not only earns points on travel purchases, but it also offers travel insurance, which means that I got travel insurance protection on my flight.
Liz Weston: And that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a travel or money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]
Also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode. And remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.
Elina Geller: And here’s our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general education and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.
Liz Weston: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.